of GODS & BOSSES: Has Capitalism Become a Religion?

Author:Dunbar, Mark

Religious feeling has always been a catalyst for both extreme resistance and extreme acquiescence to power. As Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1845 memoir, "The slave auctioneers bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other ... Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand-in-hand together." Likewise, Paul's instruction for a slave to obey his master was in the sermons of many antebellum pastors, white and black alike. Yet abolitionism was a Christian (specifically Calvinist) movement; God in their mind sorted the world into damned and saved, not master and slave. And when Nat Turner was asked at his trial if, having been caught (and surely to be executed) he regretted his slave revolt, he responded, "Was not Christ crucified?"

The same goes for other systems of power. Capitalism, imperialism, feudalism--their greatest defenders and fiercest enemies have believed they were following divine judgment. Peasants rebelled against their lords because Jesus taught them that all people were equal; lords murdered those peasants because God taught them through example just how ruthlessly subordination must be handled. Socialist Eugene Debs called Jesus the "master proletarian revolutionist." Advertising executive Bruce Fairchild Barton called him "the founder of modern business."

Nonbelievers shrug off this religious polarity, assuming the impulse to resist or acquiesce must just be deeper, more fundamental to a person's character than their religious conviction; the invocation of religion is seen as rhetorical, psychological, or, in some incomprehensible way, both. Perhaps this is true for some (or even most). No thinking person, for example, seriously believes the Falwell family cares about saving souls. But Nat Turner didn't invoke Christ to appeal to his masters religiosity; he swung his hatchet with the same righteousness as his master swung his whip.

To say that Eugene McCarraher's The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (due for release in November by Harvard University Press) is about the interplay of religion and power would be like saying Das Kapital was about working conditions in Victorian England or that Moby Dick was about a whale-hunting expedition gone wrong. Such descriptions provide the context for those stories, but they don't tell you anything about what those stories mean.

At one point McCarraher describes Enchantments of Mammon as "the history of capitalism in America." More accurately it could be called "the story we've told ourselves about the history of capitalism in America," but it's even more than that. It's a colossal attempt to rewrite intellectual history, arguing against the prevailing wisdom that the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution "de-enchanted" the world-material forces having replaced religious spirits as the world's primary movers--and that nineteenth-century Romanticism was a failed effort by poets and skilled workers (artisans) to "re-enchant" it. This prevailing wisdom was best put by historian Peter Gay in his 1995 book, The Naked Heart:

Leading romantics saw it as their historic mission to re-enchant the world. They felt an urgent need to restore the sense of wonder and mystery that eighteenth-century deists, skeptics, and atheists ... had attempted to erase with their bloodless scientism, impious insults, and shallow witticisms. McCarraher says this is wrong: the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution didn't disenchant the world but rather, in his words, "re-negotiated the terms of enchantment" to capitalism.

McCarraher doesn't just aim to disprove the prevailing wisdom in this massive 800page book; he tries to replace it with a truer and more humane story, in which he pits those who could be called the children of Prometheus against those who could be called the children of John Ruskin (the most prominent art and social critic of Victorian England).

The children of Prometheus are politically diverse; they're anyone who believes that mass production and technological progress will set humanity free, such as John D. Rockefeller, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Eugene Debs. (Many of the left's sacred cows--Marx, Debs, Engels, Lenin, Emma Goldman, F.D.R. etc.--are put on a convex stone for sacrifice in Enchantments of Mammon; some of them, I think, unjustly.) The children of Ruskin, on the other hand, are those who believe that bigness and progress aren't leading us to freedom but rather to further enslavement. They instead call for a scaling down of things: small businesses and farms, environmental stewardship, more worker control, and judging...

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